In a matter of days Zwelinzima Vavi was accused of rape and had the grievance against him dropped. I’m not surprised by this spectacle. What makes me concerned is the question of a rape accusation being simply attributed as a ploy in politics. The woman who dropped the charges demanded R2 million from Vavi in order to keep quiet but after a two-hour meeting she dropped the charges and Vavi is said to be charging her for extortion. Yet another leader in South Africa has a sex scandal hanging over his head. And in his defence, he says the accusation (and other accusations against him) is merely a smear campaign because he didn’t support President Jacob Zuma at Mangaung.
This isn’t new in South Africa. This dismissal of rape in our public discourse is worrying. How can we take rape seriously in this country if women’s bodies are used as bait in a political game? The pervasive dismissal of rape where men in power should be held responsible — charged and jailed — but get away with it, makes it difficult for us to collectively concede as a country that women’s bodies are under siege.
The most obvious rape case, which I will not elaborate upon, is that of our very own president. Vavi’s incident also reminds me of Makhaya Ntini’s case in 1999 when he was accused of rape and throughout the entire case the woman who accused him was the enemy of the state and part of a conspiracy to ruin Ntini’s career. Why is it that powerful men continue to be at the centre of rape cases and seem to be getting away with it?
This problem highlights a couple of issues. Firstly, it’s okay to use women’s bodies as a ploy in the game of politics. Second, politics is a dangerous space for women and the masculine nature of politics highlights that in order to establish power women can be discredited. We also learn that women are being silenced more and more when the public discourse suggests that when a woman reports rape it can be dismissed and more importantly she will be the one who is punished. Furthermore, men get the message that they can get away with rape, they only need some political power and they can dismiss a woman’s charges easily. I may not know the extent of the story and whether or not the woman was in fact raped. And this is the very problem with rape. A woman’s body is the evidence and the site of the crime. The woman is the person who has to report the crime. What we keep seeing in South Africa is that women’s bodies and their stories can be nullified when a powerful man wants to save his political career.
The issue of rape recently came up in my Grade 9 class discussion. The context was not related to the Vavi case as we were talking about the justice system in relation to the song by Bob Dylan, The Hurricane. I asked the class to find recent examples of the justice system failing on the grounds of unfair discrimination. One of the girls mentioned that race and gender can be a factor.
One of the boys vehemently opposed this saying rape cases were often the result of a girl or woman lying about the fact that she was raped. A 15-year-old boy has learned that it’s okay to dismiss rape cases. And after hearing about the Vavi case he will tell me that he is justified in having this opinion. This idea that women often lie about rape highlights the problematic discourse about rape in this country and undermines the thousands of women who are silenced and never report rape or sexual violence.
Vavi is the victor in this case and once again a woman has been placed on the proverbial altar to be slaughtered and questioned. We shouldn’t wonder why women do not feel safe in this country. Our leaders are telling us that we are mere objects, which are fickle and can change our stories overnight, in fact, in a matter of two hours.